Galveston Undergrad Studying at the South Pole

A Texas A&M University at Galveston science undergraduate is living the dream at the bottom of the world – Antarctica.

Katie Westmoreland, a senior with a double major in marine fisheries and marine biology, has been working with 22 other researchers on the icy continent for the past six weeks. The group was studying various topics ranging from climate change to ocean currents and marine diets and is part of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research project.

Westmoreland has packed in a full semester’s work with special attention to zooplankton such as krill – tiny organisms that are a whale’s favorite food source – and salps, another key item in the marine food chain.

“We have been looking at the Antarctic ecosystem, especially with what has happened over the last 25 years,” she says.

Westmoreland worked aboard the research vessel Laurence M. Gould. She finds that climate change is occurring much more rapidly at the poles than in other parts of the world, and studying the temperature fluctuations and season declines in sea ice on the marine life in the area is critical.

Antarctica is the most remote of all the continents and was not even discovered until 1820, when some Russian sailors stumbled upon it. The area was largely neglected for the rest of the century. Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia and despite its icy terrain, it is considered a desert – it averages only 8 inches of precipitation a year. It is also the coldest place on Earth: the lowest temperature ever recorded occurred on July 21, 1983 when it reached minus-128 degrees at Vostok Station.

The continent has been governed by the Antarctic Treaty System since 1959, with 38 countries participating in the treaty which prohibits military activities, mineral mining, nuclear explosions and nuclear waste. At any given time, there are 1,000 to 4,000 scientists conducting research on the continent.

It’s currently summer -- in name only -- in Antarctica. Westmoreland says weather conditions are always a challenge. Her ship was stuck in some ice for several days before being knocked free and returning to somewhat of a normal schedule.

“This has been a wonderful opportunity for me,” Westmoreland adds. “It’s been a thrill to work down there with some of the best scientists in the world. I am thankful for all the wonderful professors and the education I have received and this has been the experience of a lifetime.”

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